In the '80s and '90s, boxing was a huge deal. You could hardly go a few days without hearing about the exploits of or bouts between people like Evander Holyfield, Sugar Ray Leonard, or Iron Mike Tyson. The sport has roots which can be traced back hundreds of years, and, for a time, it was the lifeblood of violent American contact sports. The rest of the world may enjoy soccer and cricket, but, in the states, if people aren’t fighting or tackling each other, we tend not to care.
That said, boxing certainly began to wane in popularity in the late '90s and early 2000s, and, up until guys like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao hit the scene, it seems like very few people held an interest in the sport. In my mind, that can be chalked up to the increased popularity of alternative fighting formats like the WWE or the MMA. Mixed Martial Arts, in particular, surged in ratings over the years, and, though few would likely have cared about the goings-on of female MMA fighters twenty years ago, it’s a hot topic today.
If there’s one name you know from that scene, it has to be that of explosive bantamweight Ronda Rousey. With a record of twelve wins and two losses, she’s one of the more successful fighters of her class, and she’s also the first American woman to ever win an Olympic medal for judo. She’s stepped away from the sport, however, and we’d like to list 15 who will soon outshine her.
15 Gina Carano
UFC fans will be quick to point out that Carano has actually stepped away from the league, but, even so, it’s important to recognize her contributions to the sport. Some have called her the Ronda Rousey before Ronda Rousey, which could be seen as quite the compliment. Her only loss came to the current champion of the league, Cris Cyborg. Since then, she’s made a few appearances in TV and film, and especially attentive fans may have noticed her role in the recent Deadpool movie.
Though her presence in the UFC predates Rousey, she actually tried to book a fight with the MMA dynamo in 2014, though the meeting never actually came to fruition. Some may question how someone who appeared in less fights and fought before Rousey could possibly capture the spotlight from her, but I would argue that, as the league gains more attention, the icons of yesteryear will gain more notoriety. Now, Carano only actually ever appeared in a total of 8 fights, which, from an outside perspective, certainly doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but her legacy and devilish good looks will likely allow her to hold a place in the annals of women’s UFC history.
14 Rose Namajunas
The current UFC strawweight champion, Namajunas certainly has the potential to outshine Rousey in terms of popularity. A youthful 25, she seems to have a whole lot of fight left in her, and, with a UFC record of six wins and two losses, she’s a force to be reckoned with right now. She’s currently famous for chopping off her long hair and sporting an intimidating military-style buzz cut.
As I’ve said, she’s a strawweight fighter, which means that, at five foot five and 115 pounds, she doesn’t exactly look like a fighter. As we all know, however, looks can be deceiving, and few people would ever want to have to toe it against this female powerhouse. She entered the UFC in 2013 at the age of 20, so she’s been around the block a few times. Rousey might have been the Mike Tyson of her sport, but Namajunas is quickly coming to claim that title in her weight class. As with most things, icons are often only really recognized at the end of their careers when their legacy can truly be appreciated, and I think that sort of scenario is what will put Rose Namajunas in the UFC history books.
13 Holly Holm
How do you land yourself on a list discussing female UFC fighters that could eclipse the likes of Ronda Rousey? Well, beating her in an actual fight would certainly go a long way toward that end. Rousey later attributed her loss in this match and in a fight against contemporary Amanda Nunes to her eventual exit from the league and arrive in the WWE, but, to me, that praise rings a bit hollow. Rousey has yet to really make a name for herself in that league, and I doubt many non-fans even know that she isn’t really a fixture of MMA at this point.
What’s more, Holly Holm is a former UFC bantamweight champion, and she’s cut her teeth in the world of boxing and kickboxing, as well. Holm really should be a bigger name than Rousey at this point: she basically took her title. I think her one-time opponent maintains a larger profile largely through her presence in the media. I don’t mean to insult Rousey, but I don’t think nearly as many people care what she’s up to in the WWE. I’m not exactly steeped in women’s WWE knowledge, but, to me, it feels like she’s taken a step back. Holly Holm also has five years on the former MMA icon, and the seniority should in theory translate to some more respect in the league — unlike Rousey, she’s still in it.
12 Felice Herrig
Herrig’s name has taken somewhat of a dive in recent weeks thanks to her April loss to Karolina Kowalkiewicz, but that doesn’t mean she should be excluded from this conversation. With fourteen wins and seven losses under her belt, Lil’ Bulldog is something of a seasoned veteran in this growing sport, and I think fans would be remiss to not include her from the race to eclipse Ronda Rousey in terms of popularity. As a 115-pound strawweight, she’s not really in the same league as Rousey, but that absolutely doesn’t mean she isn’t as fierce or intimidating. Honesty, her semi-underdog status only makes her more of an interesting character in the UFC world.
After all, Lennox Lewis eventually took Tyson’s heavyweight title, and, though it’s extraordinarily unlikely that Herrig and Rousey will ever meet in the octagon, she could easily come to claim the former champion’s spotlight.
She also boasts a physical appeal matched by few of her contemporaries, and she’s even partaken in a few revealing photoshoots, which certainly helped to bolster her visibility both in and outside of the world of UFC. Fans of the sport likely already know her name, but I would be willing to bet that the 33-year-old straweight’s name is soon to be known on a household basis.
11 Cris Cyborg
Cris Cyborg’s name is passed around a lot in UFC circles, and I’m frankly astonished that she hasn’t bested Rousey in terms of popularity already. There’s no doubt that #CyborgNation is coming to eclipse the accomplishments of the 31-year-old current WWE wrestler, and I would hazard a guess that, following one or two more high-profile fights, we’ll hear her name tossed around much, much more often in the mainstream media. With competition like this, it seems ridiculous to think that Rousey is somehow still on top. Cyborg threw some major shade at Rousey when she made the decision to officially sign with the WWE, stating in an interview that she believed Rousey would enjoy her time in the WWE because it’s a reality entirely separate from that of the UFC.
“I believe that she will be happy in WWE,” Cyborg said. “It’s completely different from the reality of MMA. For example, wins and losses [in the WWE] are decided before the shows.”
As far as I know, these two competitors never actually got the chance to go toe-to-toe in the octagon, which is a major shame. That would have been the Mayweather v. Pacquiao or Tyson v. Holyfield of our day.
10 Joanna Jedrzejczyk
With an MMA record of fourteen wins and a mere two losses, thirty year old Joanna Jedrzejczyk is a force to be reckoned with. She gained the UFC strawweight belt in 2015 and managed to successfully defend it a full five times before eventually losing to Rose Namajunas. Jedrzejczyk’s career is far from over, however, and she’s stated in April that she is looking to become champion one more time before she bows out from the league. With an attitude and reputation like that, you’d think that she would have had more media exposure by now.
She’s also built a major social media following, and she’s caused enough carnage in the league to certainly have made her mark.
One of the few European-born contenders and the only Polish born UFC champion, Jedrzejczyk should be able to draw support from all over the world. What’s more, unlike Rousey, who retired following two consecutive losses, she’s in it to win it and looking to go out on top. I tend to agree with Cris Cyborg: heading over to the WWE seems like a bit of a cop out. That kind of thinking just doesn’t appear to be in Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s wheelhouse, though. If you are into women’s UFC and you haven’t heard her name yet, you should check her out — she’ll definitely surprise you.
9 Valentina Shevchenko
Valentina Shevchenko is probably one of the most formidable current Ultimate Fighting Championship competitors in the sport right now. A former kickboxer and Muay Thai fighter, this Kyrgyzstan-born flyweight developed a reputation for success before she even stepped into the octagon. Though she has a combined record of eighteen wins and fifteen losses, don’t let that record fool you. While the likes of Ronda Rousey only stuck around for a total of fourteen fights and bowed out after her only two consecutive losses, Shevchenko has been going strong for more than thirty matches. It’s hard to make that many appearances and not make a name for yourself, but, though she’s highly respected in the world of MMA, she doesn’t have nearly the profile of Rousey.
Plus, at thirty years old, Shevchenko isn’t likely to give up on the sport any time soon. A former boxer, she’s definitely got what it takes to make it through the long haul, and she’ll likely be remembered for sticking it out through so many fights. In a sport where competitors tend to fizzle out after just a few losses, Shevchenko has proven that she’s worthy of the kind of recognition received by her ex-MMA contemporary.
8 Sarah Kaufman
Sarah Kaufman is by all means a veteran of MMA and the UFC. Though she’s drifted in and out of relevancy over a career which began all the way back in 2006, she’s racked up a considerable amount of wins, and her record speaks for itself. With nineteen total wins and a mere four losses, her opponents should think twice before booking a flight with her. Though she’s not actually in the like officially right now, she’s predicted that 2018 will both see her returning to the UFC and capturing a bantamweight title. That might be a lot of talk, but Sarah Kaufman definitely has what it takes to back those assertions up.
She’s also bested the likes of Meisha Tate, the aforementioned Valentina Shevchenko, Marloes Coenen, Roxanne Modafferi, and, most importantly, Ronda Rousey herself. That wasn’t a UFC fight, though, so it didn’t get quite as much recognition. It doesn’t detract from the fact that Kaufman is likely a better fighter than Rousey, and her impact on the MMA world will be felt for quite a while. A mere 32 years old, we have yet to see the last of Kaufman, and MMA fans the world over should be looking forward to what she has in store in the coming months and years.
7 Miesha Tate
Miesha Tate may have been an absolute force of nature in the octagon, but I don’t think her days of fighting in the UFC will be her most remembered accomplishments. Stepping away from her competitive days with a combined record of eighteen wins and seven losses, Tate was doubtlessly a successful contender. In the time since her retirement, however, she’s taken a management role in the league, and she’s stated that, during her final fight, she had an epiphany concerning her future.
“I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience,” Tate said of her final fight against opponent Raquel Pennington. “I tried to pull it out of myself, but it wasn’t happening.”
Seeing during the fight that her future was in management, she subsequently retired from MMA and made it her mission to improve the lives of up-and-coming fighters. “I went through the thick of it,” she commented on her experience with MMA managers. “I’ve had bad management and great management,. Some set examples to follow in their steps; others showed what not to do.” With that kind of mentality, it’s likely that Tate’s reputation will grow as a result of the accomplishments of the contenders she plants to represent. Rousey may have made a direct impact on the league, but Miesha Tate’s more subtle influence may have an even more lasting effect on the UFC.
6 Cynthia Calvillo
If you thought Ronda Rousey was scary, just wait until you see what Cynthia Calvillo has to offer. A member of the Team Alpha Male, she trains almost exclusively with male MMA fighters. In a sport in which the divide between genders can be pretty drastic, this is particularly impressive. She’s also been commended for her risk-taking nature and daring maneuvers in fights, which makes her one of the more entertaining mixed martial artists to watch. Another strawweight with a serious chance to make a title run, we’ll likely be hearing much more from Calvillo in the coming months. Right now, Calvillo boasts a record of six wins and one loss, which is to say that she doesn’t taste defeat very often. A true competitor, I almost feel bad for anyone who has to go up against her.
Though such a small package doesn’t exactly scream precision fighting superiority, Calvillo is one of the few who has what it takes to take the MMA and UFC world by storm.
She’s currently ranked sixth in the strawweight weight class, but that doesn’t mean she should be counted out. If this weight class got a bit more attention, which it could alongside the ever growing popularity of mixed martial arts, Calvillo’s name could soon become a very recognizable one.
5 Amanda Nunes
I honestly can’t figure out why Amanda Nunes hasn’t eclipsed the popularity of Ronda Rousey; she’s a vicious fighter, and she actually beat Rousey in a bantamweight title fight and was a major factor in her retirement from the league earlier this year. Well, she’s stated in an interview that she hasn’t officially quit MMA, but she does seem to be focused entirely on wrestling in the WWE at the moment. Unlike Rowdy Rousey, Amanda Nunes is still a major player in women’s UFC, and she remains the reigning bantamweight champ.
She has essentially dethroned Rousey in every aspect of the word, yet she has failed to capture whatever it is that made Rousey such a big name in the first place.
Though I’ve made the comparison already in reference to another female UFC fighter, Nunes is very much the Lennox Lewis to Rousey’s Iron Mike. Of course, Tyson’s legacy was not instantly quashed by his failure to defend the heavyweight title, so it follows that Ronda Rousey is still a well-known and well-respected name. Nunes deserves more recognition, through, which she may hopefully receive in the coming years. Tons of fighters go their entire careers in pursuit of what Nunes has had for a while, and it’s nothing short of a mystery as to why the masses don’t know quite know who she is yet.
4 Tara LaRosa
At 40 years of age, Tara LaRosa is perhaps one of the most senior fighters to ever compete in the UFC, though that is absolutely no reason to count her out. With an impressive record featuring twenty-two wins and a mere five losses, few fighters could ever hope to imitate her complete domination of the sport. She comes from a time when true competitive women’s MMA was still very much in its infancy. As a result, she suffered through inconsistent rulesets, shady business practices, and periods of little to no attention. To emphasize that fact, she once went on a blistering fifteen-fight winning streak without garnering much interest, something the great Ronda Rousey could not accomplish.
She’s also famous for going toe-to-toe with an Internet heckler, a move which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was up to defend her name and status no matter what the circumstances.
While Rousey may have bowed out of the MMA scene after suffering a few embarrassing losses, at the age of 40, LaRosa demonstrated that she will literally do anything to prove that she is the ultimate fighter. To many, she’s more of a champion than Rousey ever was or will be.
3 Jessica Andrade
Another 2018 strawweight title hopeful, Jessica Andrade has become something of an underdog thanks to a recent loss by unanimous decision to the aforementioned Joanna Jedrzejczyk. That shouldn’t be a reason to count her out, however, as she’s proven to be more determined than ever to capture the title. Women’s UFC strawweight may seem slightly ridiculous to those outside of MMA’s sphere of influence, but fans know that title bouts and important matches can be just as heated as the exchange of blows between male heavyweight competitors. In MMA, size doesn’t matter, and Jessica Andrade would probably be among the first to let you know that. Standing tall at five-foot-two, she’s the kind of pint sized person that could absolutely use her unseen strength to take you by surprise.
Her name actually comes up a lot in women’s MMA conversation, and, given a few more years of experience, she could easily become just as talked-about as Rousey herself. With a staggeringly good record of eighteen wins and six losses, few would look forward to fighting it out with this female firecracker. Amongst a sea of similar competitors, Jessica Andrade manages to stand out, and it likely won’t be long till we’re hearing about her more regularly in mainstream sports media.
2 Karolina Kowalkiewicz
Another strawweight title contender, Kowalkiewicz made headlines when, last month, she was involved in an altercation between herself and male MMA legend Conor McGregor. Well, it was more of an indirect fight, as McGregor allegedly assembled a band of thugs to assault the bus on which Kowalkiewicz and several other female UFC fighters were riding.
While McGregor’s exact intentions are difficult to know for sure, Kowalkiewicz stated in an interview that she wasn’t frazzled by the encounter, drawing from her strong Eastern European heritage.
“I am from Poland,” she said. “So I am okay.” So, an Irish UFC fighter with a temper couldn’t rough her up, but neither could Felice Herrig, whom she bested in a match that same day. The owner of twelve wins and two losses in the UFC, there are few who could compete with Kowalkiewicz’s talent. Again, while she couldn’t really be considered a direct competitor or Ronda Rousey due to her height and weight, I would have to imagine that, on an even playing field, Kowalkiewicz would be the more stern competitor. Since Rousey is now more of a fixture of the WWE now, it’s prime time for fighters such as Kowalkiewicz to steal the spotlight from her.
1 Alexa Grasso
Yet another strawweight competitor, Alexa Grasso is one of the biggest names in the sport to come from Mexico, and she recently beat fellow fighter Randa Markos in an August 2017 co-headliner in Mexico City in a split decision victory. A mere 23 years old at the time, there can be no doubt that Grasso is one of the UFC’s greatest up-and-coming competitors. Plus, having only dropped one match in her eleven fight history, Grasso isn’t familiar with defeat. To many, she represents a new wave of female fighters taking the UFC by storm as the sport continues to grow in popularity. She’s scheduled to go up against the as-of-now undefeated Tatiana Suarez in what should be an explosive fight taking place on the 19th of May.
Again, despite being a strawweight, Alexa Grasso’s position as a triumphant young pugilist has yet to be truly challenged or tarnished. She’s already racked up nearly as many wins as Ronda Rousey, but she is considerably younger. Whereas few MMA fans are likely to keep up with Ronda Rousey’s exploits in the WWE, martial artists the world over will be paying close attention to every move made by this dynamo at the top of her game.
References: mmajunkie.com, espn.com